- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

April 7

Greenwood (Mississippi) Commonwealth on gas tax:

After spending a good part of this legislative session on a failed attempt to enact a tax cut, expect Mississippi legislators to go in the opposite direction next year.

At least that’s the prediction of Geoff Pender, who covers the Legislature for The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson.

Pender’s analysis sounds about right. The crumbling state of Mississippi’s infrastructure - its roads, highways and bridges - is going to force legislators to do something.

They took a Band-Aid approach this year, borrowing $162 million to deal with the problem, mostly for bridge repair and replacement, but that’s barely a start. The state has something like $1 billion worth of deferred maintenance - that is, repair work that should have been done long before now but has been left undone for lack of funding. Some of the deterioration has gone on so long that the condition of the infrastructure is getting perilous. Just to keep up on the maintenance, transportation leaders say they need somewhere around a half-billion dollars more a year than the current revenue stream - mostly from the tax on gasoline and diesel - presently generates.

There is no short-term solution. What we are looking at is a systemic problem - a tax mechanism that is only generating about half the revenue needed to take care of what this state has built. An increase in the fuel tax has got to be a big part of the fix. Legislators with any sense know it. But they again failed to do anything because of fear of how it might jeopardize their re-election chances.

They had a perfect environment this year to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1987. With pump prices lower than they have been in years, any griping from motorists would have been short-lived and muted. But instead legislators took the politically easy route and punted the problem for another time.

They are waiting for some political cover from the business community. The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, has been asked to study the problem and make some recommendations. Those are supposed to be ready by the beginning of the 2016 legislative session

MEC will probably do a fine job with the report, but we’re already prepared to take a stab at what it might say: Mississippi has built a fine network of bridges and four-lane highways over the past 30 years, but it hasn’t set aside anywhere near enough money to repair them as they inevitably deteriorate. Nor will it have enough money in the future under its present funding mechanism. There may be some pots of money that can be shifted around, but the bulk of the increase has to come from a tax increase. The most logical place is the tax at the pump. It has to go up. Just adjusting for inflation alone would mean raising the tax from its current 18.4 cents per gallon to about 38 cents. The longer the Legislature waits, the higher the increase will need to be.

If voters were smart, they would ask this year’s candidates for the Legislature whether they will vote for a gas tax increase. Any that say “no” should be booted out of office. They are not just messing up motorists’ front-end alignments. They are playing with people’s lives.

Online:

http://www.gwcommonwealth.com

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April 7

Sun Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi, on Singing River Health System retiree:

The Singing River Health System retirees won a hard-fought battle in the recent legislative session, helping pass the Senate bill that requires more scrutiny of the public hospitals in Mississippi.

They proved to the powers in Jackson they won’t back down and they showed their determination, resolve and staying power in the effort to build a better Singing River Health System.

Now they should use that momentum to get to the bottom of the pension-fund scandal at SRHS.

The bill, which we expect Gov. Phil Bryant to sign in a ceremony in Jackson County, won’t be much help. It does not give those in the plan adequate access to pension-trustee proceedings and it won’t even be in effect until January.

People who are relying on the pension have no assurance it will exist in January and that’s why they should demand access to its financial statements now.

After all, it is their plan.

And they deserve to know what the trustees are so intent on hiding from them.

We know SRHS in 2009 stopped making contributions to the plan but sent participants statements that indicated they were still being made.

In the only financial statements we’ve seen - and the SRHS didn’t give us those - we learned the plan was making high-risk investments in 2010-11 that lost money.

The financial statements are the evidence plan participants need to determine if the trustees, SRHS Board and the county Board of Supervisors are indeed looking after the best interests of those who were relying on the plan for comfortable retirement.

Nothing in the open records law says those boards can’t release that information, it just says they don’t have to. Billy Guice, the attorney hired by the county to investigate the mess, said Monday he knows “who was told what and who wasn’t told about some things,” but he said he can’t reveal that information.

This should not be a tough call for the supervisors who hired Guice. Do they side with the retirees and taxpayers of Jackson County, who will be voting to re-elect or not re-elect them, or do they continue to keep the facts secret about what went on at Singing River Health System?

What Guice knows should be shared with everyone, and soon.

Online:

http://www.sunherald.com

___

April 5

Northeast Mississippi Journal, Tupelo, Mississippi, on University of Mississippi chancellor’s departure:

University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones’ announcement Thursday that he could not accept the offer of the state’s Institutions of Higher Learning board for a limited contract without the possibility of further renewal was one side of a ragged and jarring conclusion in a two-way broken relationship that stirred widespread strong reactions.

Jones, the first physician to head the university in its 167 years, was hired in 2009, succeeding the esteemed Robert Khayat, the man who had hired Jones as vice chancellor of the university’s medical center and health-related schools in Jackson.

Trustees on what’s usually called the College Board split with Jones over how the medical center had been financially administered. There was no suggestion of illegality, just violation of the way the trustees said affairs should be handled.

Jones disagreed. The impasse developed. Trustees, by a 9-2 vote, authorized a search for a new chancellor, effectively refusing to extend Jones’ contract at its Sept. 14 expiration. Reaction, largely from within the ranks of Ole Miss’ alumni, supporters and friends, clearly exceeded anything anticipated by the trustees.

Jones had established his own strong record as the university’s leader. He was open, engaged and popular among students, faculty and in the leadership ranks of the alumni association.

If there were doubts before about the need for greater transparency they were erased by IHL’s seemingly clumsy handling of the controversy, which has confirmed in the minds of many a view that changes are needed in the governance structure for all the universities.

That may be correct, but it is a complex issue that should be methodically examined with participation at several levels including but not confined to the current IHL trustees. The IHL Board was created to shield universities from political interference, and a knee-jerk political reaction shouldn’t drive hasty change. Nevertheless, every public institution should undergo periodic scrutiny that may lead to change if there is good reason.

The first course must be finding the university’s next chancellor, one who carries forward the exceptional progressive vision and inclusiveness created by Khayat and Jones. Given the circumstances, IHL should consider a more open process than it has used in the past.

There’s no turning back for Ole Miss or any other Mississippi university. The world is the changing doorstep for graduates, and every “next” leader must be on the cutting edge of empowering new knowledge built on intellectual boldness and ethical integrity.

Online:

http://djournal.com

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